Back in the early 1960s, when I was an undergraduate, I found myself listening to a lecture given by a well-known physiological psychologist, Elliott Stellar. I was perplexed to hear him tell us:
“Some of you may have pet dogs at home, and I’ll bet you think you know something about their behaviour. I’ll bet you have described some of their behaviours as reflecting their emotional state. So you think they are happy if they wag their tail. You think they are afraid if they cringe or run away. You think they are angry when they growl.
“Well, you are wrong. Dogs don’t feel the emotion fear; they simply show avoidance behaviour. They don’t feel happiness; they simply become aroused and show approach behaviours. They don’t get angry, but simply engage in aggressive behaviour. Get it into your head that dogs don’t feel the same emotions that people do; they simply have motivated behaviours that we interpret as emotions.”
Stellar was expressing a belief common at the time – namely, that dogs (and other animals) don’t have emotions similar to our own. However, more than 50 years of research has been collected since then and it is now quite acceptable for psychologists to talk about the emotional lives of dogs. Why the change?
Dogs aren’t that different from humans
We now understand there are many similarities between dogs and people. Just consider:
- Dogs have all the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans.
- Dogs have the same hormones and undergo the same chemically driven changes that humans do during emotional states. They even have the hormone oxytocin, which in humans is involved with feeling love and affection.
- When we measure stress levels in dogs, we look for the same corticosteroids in the blood that we look for in people.
- Recent brain scans using fMRI (check this) technology has shown that the same regions of the brain in dogs and humans are activated for particular emotional states such as anger or affection.
Since dogs have the same neurology and chemistry as people, it seems reasonable to suggest that they also have similar emotions.
I believe that the vast majority of scientists today are willing to accept the fact that dogs have emotions. However, it is important to not go overboard and immediately assume that the range of emotions felt by dogs and humans is exactly the same.
To understand what dogs feel, we must turn to research that explores the emotions of humans. Not all people have the full scope of all possible emotions. In fact, at some points in your life, you did not have the full complement of emotions you feel and express today. Studies show that infants and very young children have a more limited range of emotions, but over time, children’s emotions begin to differentiate and they experience new and more complex emotional states.
A dog’s emotions are similar to a young child’s
This data is important to our understanding of the emotional lives of dogs because researchers now believe that the mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a 2½-year-old human. This conclusion holds for most mental abilities — including emotions. Thus we can look to human research to see what we might expect of our dogs.
Like young children, dogs will clearly have emotions — but many fewer kinds of emotions than we find in adults. As you can see in the graph, a human infant at birth has only an emotion we might call excitement. This indicates how aroused he is, ranging from very calm up to a state of frenzy. Within the first weeks of life, the excitement state comes to take on a positive or negative flavour, so we can now detect general emotions of contentment and distress. In the next couple of months, disgust, fear, and anger become detectable in the infant. Joy often does not appear until the infant is nearly six months of age, and is followed by the emergence of shyness or suspicion. True affection (the sort we could label “love”) does not fully emerge until nine or ten months of age.
Complex social emotions, which have elements that must be learned, don’t appear until years later. Shame and pride take more than three years to appear, while guilt appears around six months after these. A child must be nearly four years of age before she feels contempt.
So which emotions can a dog feel?
This developmental sequence in young children is the golden key to understanding the emotions of dogs. Dogs go through their developmental stages much more quickly than humans, and possess all the emotional range they will ever achieve by the time they are around six months of age (depending on the rate of maturation within their breed). However, we know that the assortment of emotions available to the dog will not exceed that which is available to a 2½-year-old human. This means that a dog will have all the basic emotions — joy, fear, anger, disgust, and even love. However, he will not feel the more complex emotions such as guilt, pride and shame.
Now, many people might argue that they have seen evidence indicating their dogs are capable of feeling guilt. The typical situation is when you come home and your dog starts slinking around and showing discomfort; then you find he has left a smelly brown deposit on your kitchen floor. It’s natural to conclude that the dog was acting in a way that shows he is feeling guilty about his transgression. However, this is not guilt; it’s simply the more basic emotion of fear. The dog has learned that when you appear and his droppings are visible on the floor, bad things happen. What you see is his fear of punishment — he will never feel guilt.
So what does this mean for those of us who live and interact with dogs? The good news is that you can feel free to dress your dog in that silly party costume. He will not feel shame, regardless of how ridiculous he looks. He will also not feel pride at winning a prize at a dog show or obedience competition. But your dog can still feel love for you, and experience contentment when you are around — and aren’t these the emotions we truly value?